The top ten sports stories of 2013:
1. Aaron Hernandez charged with murder
Aaron Hernandez, a star tight end for the New England Patriots ($41 million contract), was charged with murdering a friend, semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. Hernandez was filmed being led, handcuffed, from his home, which was within a few blocks of where Lloyd’s body was found.
Prosecutors say Hernandez drove Lloyd and two other friends, Carolos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, to an industrial park where the victim was shot.
Legal analysts say it’s a difficult case for the state, because of three factors:
(1) The murder weapon has not been found;
(2) There apparently were three witnesses to the crime, but all are implicated, so there’s likely to be inconsistencies which could be difficult for a jury to reconcile;
(3) There’s no credible motive. Prosecutors say Hernandez killed Odin for socializing with people he disliked. Is it believable Hernandez would commit premeditated murder for that?
But while there may not be enough evidence for guilt “beyond reasonable doubt,” there may be a “preponderance of evidence” for a civil lawsuit that could take away most of what’s left of the Hernandez fortune once he pays his lawyers. Odin’s mother has filed a lawsuit for wrongful death.
Think of another ex-NFL star: O.J. Simpson.
2. Jameis Winston investigated for rape, wins Heisman
The second-most troubling police drama of the sporting year involved 19-year-old Jameis Winston, redshirt freshman quarterback of the No. 1 college football team in the country, Florida State. “Famous” Jameis was called “Infamous” Jameis when he was investigated for sexual battery against a young woman who visited his off-campus apartment and had sex with him in the presence of others.
He said the sex was consensual; she said it was not. The charges were dismissed a few days before Heisman Trophy ballots were due. Winston won college football’s most prestigious award, in a landslide, but doubts linger about his character.
3. Red Sox rise from shrapnel and worst to first
In the feel-good story of the year the Boston Red Sox, last in the AL East in 2012, rose to the top in 2013 and won the World Series in six games against St. Louis.
It was far more than a baseball story. The lethal bombings that interrupted the Boston Marathon in June shattered the heart of the city but pumped ever more life into its baseball fans and their beloved team, rallying to the battle cry of “Boston Strong.”
Led by a massive Dominican, 37-year-old Dave Ortiz, the Red Sox slugged when they needed to, Jacoby Ellsbury stole bases, their pitching staff rarely gave up a lead, and in the end, Big Papi held held high his MVP trophy and bellowed, “This is our bleeping city. . . . Boston, this is for you.”
4. Rodriguez faces 211-game suspension
On his way to retirement, baseball commissioner Bud Selig tried to enhance his legacy by bringing down a superstar, Alex Rodriguez, who repeatedly has faced accusations of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Confident that his evidence of wrongdoing was unassailable, Selig slapped a 211-game suspension on the New York Yankees’ 38-year-old third baseman. Rodriguez reacted with a rant against Selig and an appeal to arbitration.
At stake is lots of money, as A-Rod in 2008 signed a 10-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees, who seem to be in favor of the suspension standing.
5. NFL racked with injuries, drugs, racists and bullies
It was another trying year for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who thought the worst was behind him with the Bountygate of 2012. This year he had to deal with costly litigation and widespread criticism over the frequency, severity and denial of head trauma in pro football.
Then it became a preponderance of injuries of all kinds. You could put a team together of players on injured reserve who, if healthy, could compete against the players who are going to the Pro Bowl. The rate of ACL knee injuries is at an all-time high.
Of course there was another crop of drug cheaters. The Seattle Seahawks may be the best team in the league even though three of their players – Bruce Irwin, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond – were suspended this season for using performance enhancing drugs.
Besides the physical and chemical problems there were some troubling psychological issues. Racism abounded, beginning in training camp, when Philadelphia receiver Riley Cooper was caught on audio and video yelling the N-word at a rock concert.
Later in the season there were allegations of players and referees using the slur on the field, and numerous stories came out of its widespread usage in locker rooms.
Also embarrassing were weekly protests by American Indians over the nickname Washington Redskins.
Goodell then had to confront a bullying issue that was publicized when Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin accused his linemate, Richie Incognito, of harassing him to the point that he left the team. Numerous other alarming stories emerged from other quarters: bullying apparently has long been part of the NFL culture, but this is the year the truth came out.
6. Belichick loses 10 starters, still finishes first
Bill Belichick is regarded as the NFL’s best coach. It’s not because he’s the best strategist (though he may be), or the best motivator (though he may be) or the best halftime adjustor (though he may be) or the best media schmoozer (which he definitely is not).
What sets Belichick apart is his resourcefulness. No matter who leaves the team – stars like Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Wes Welker – or who gets injured – quarterback Tom Brady and countless others – Belichick’s New England Patriots make the playoffs year after year.
This season is the most impressive yet by Old Sourface. When the Patriots whipped Buffalo last Sunday they were missing nine opening-day starters. And that doesn’t count Aaron Hernandez, jailed on murder charges before the season began. Still, the Partriots won their eighth AFC East championship in nine years.
7. Rafael Nadal returns to the top
Rafael Nadal, who had lost his No. 1 ranking in world tennis to Novak Djokovic, reclaimed his top position as he came back from knee injuries to win 75 of 82 matches for the year. The 27-year-old Spanish player defeated Djokovic in the semifinals en route to winning the French Open. He beat Djokovic in the final of the U.S. Open for the 13th Grand Slam title of his career.
As if that were not enough, during the time he missed with knee trouble, Nadal studied poker and became a world-class player. He won a four-hour tournament in Prague in December.
8. Peyton overcomes neck surgery to toss 51 TDs
In his second season following multiple surgeries on his neck, Denver’s Peyton Manning broke Tom Brady’s record for most touchdown passes in a season when he threw his 51st in a recent game in Houston.
The Broncos enter the postseason as the AFC top seed, with Manning at 38 enjoying his finest season, at least statistically. He finished it by breaking Drew Brees’ 2011 record of 5,476 yards passing.
But the next day the league began reviewing video to determine if a 7-yard pass to Eric Decker was a pass or a lateral; if disallowed, the record would be unbroken again.
9. Iron Bowl ruins Alabama’s three-peat
The Alabama Crimson Tide appeared headed for their third consecutive national championship until they fell into the Iron Bowl and a 34-28 loss to Auburn. Some are calling it the greatest college football game of all time. It was surely the most bizarre – a national championship lost in the last second when Chris Davis ran back a missed field goal 71 yards for a touchdown.
It was the most embarrassing blemish on the career of Bama head coach Nick Saban, renowned for the thoroughness of his preparation and especially for the reliability of his special teams. It seems he did not consider that a 57-yard field goal might fall short of the goal line.
The slow Tide kicking team was full of blockers; there was not enough speed to tackle Davis. So Auburn goes onto the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State.
10. Ravens bomb their way to Super Bowl win
It almost seems a distant memory now, but the Baltimore Ravens in January and February provided one of the most surprising postseason runs ever. They won as 9-point underdogs in Denver, and they won as 8-point dogs in New England. In the Super Bowl they were a 4 ½-point underdog to San Francisco, but they won 34-31.
This would be no dynasty, as the Ravens fell to earth this season, failing to make it to the postseason. In order to pay bomb-throwing quarterback Joe Flacco a $120 million contract, the team could not afford to keep his best receiver, Anquan Boldin, who bolted to the Super Bowl loser San Francisco.